Here’s a trailer for my debut collection of poems, DRIFT (Aquarius Press/Willow Books, 2012).
A few weeks ago, I did a write up on The Overground Railroad (Cherry Castle Publishing, 2015), a powerhouse of an anthology.
It’s now available!
See our smiles? You’ll have one, too, after ordering your copy.
Yesterday, I left work around 9:30am and hopped the red line to the Tenleytown Metro Station.
During my 13-minute walk, I took a deep breath and exhaled – praying that I don’t bore the students and that I don’t get caught off-guard with a question.
While the nervousness is normal for my school visits, that day’s session was a special one.
My friend and poet Hayes Davis invited me to speak to his class at Sidwell Friends, a prominent private school just north of D.C.
Chelsea Clinton and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Edson are among the highly-selective Quaker school’s notable alumni. It’s where Malia and Sasha Obama are currently enrolled.
So you know I wanted to make a good impression with it being National Poetry Month, the only time “the world,” as blogger Marie Basile put it, “recognizes our obsession with white space…”
How’d I do? Read the school’s write-up to find out.
Like Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man, Iain Haley Pollock’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy is the invisible underdog. He’s a man torn between his “black mother’s blood” and his white father. And, like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker battles the stereotypes that make him invisible since he’s not seen as a real person. This journey to identity is an involved one through which Pollack’s speaker revisits the middle passage and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Along the way he encounters an orisha while roaming Philly’s mean streets.
The speaker’s longing for home is analogous to the enslaved Igbo’s longing for home in the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster,” a poem about the middle passage. About 15 percent, or nearly two million, Africans died while being transported from African countries to Europe, Brazil and the U.S. as part of the Atlantic slave trade, according to various sources. Pollack’s speaker in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” remembers what he read about the suicides from slaves throwing themselves overboard that contributed to the high mortality rates:
When salt swallowed breath,
Igbo souls leapt from the water
as great sea eagles. Talons gripped
black bodies as a she-bear lifts
her cub by the scruff. Wings
throbbed air until all passed back
And just as striking as those physical details are the psychological ones:
[…] I knew this,
knew before I heard
the stories, read the books,
knew from the whispering
of my black mother’s blood
into my marrow. Knew also
the mocking tap of rain
on the hull christened
in my white father’s city.
The physical details intensifies the speaker’s longing for identity. That “my black mother’s blood” whispered that history “into my marrow” before “I heard/ the stories, read the books” is the speaker’s allusion to ancestral memory, which also heightens his longing for identity. However, the speaker’s white father complicates that longing. That the “rain/ on the hull christened/ in my white father’s city” is a “mocking tap” means the speaker’s aware of how African Americans see his father’s white skin as a reminder of that history.
The musical moments in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” are in the recurring “creaked”:
creaked. Creaked and creaked.
All night, creaked. All day
that was night, creaked.
Over dull slap of waves
on brine-soaked wood, creaked.
[…] creaked. Creaked and creaked
In the hollow chamber of aboy’s ear—
creaked, timbers creaked.
The onomatopoeia brought me inside the slave ship. I could feel it rocking from the “dull slap of waves.” I heard the “groans from hunger” and smelled the “foul air.” That this creaking echoes “in the hollow chamber of a boy’s ear” is a sign of the longing for identity echoing “in the hollow chamber” of his ear.
That music continues in the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuer’s Mark.” The poem’s “X” references the FEMA markings left on houses in New Orleans searched after Hurricane Katrina. The X distinguished the searched houses from others, and the markings in each X quadrant let rescuers know which houses had dead bodies, the date of the search and who did the searching. The music in “Chorus of X” is in the recurring X’s:
X say search party […]
X say live wire […]
X say no dead bodies,
[…] X say kitchen, […]
X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway,
[…] X say Lord you been flooding us too much,
[…] X say it got easier to die in water than live on land,
[…] X say lungs full of flood in the end […]
Pollack’s X is also analogous to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. Though X says a lot of things, it remains unnamed. Pollack’s speaker in “Chorus of X” also sheds light on a social issue with which America still struggles. Pollack’s speaker and use of X transforms the symbol into an inhumane image (“X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway”). That X’s four quadrants sums up any person’s life is a sign of the little regard we hold for human life. In “Chorus of X,” X is just as inhumane as calling New Orleans residents “refugees,” as if they weren’t citizens of a country touting its liberty and justice.
Another musical moment is the recurring “say”:
[…] say month,
say day, […]
say gas leak, say floodwater,
say dead dog, dead cat,
[…] say one dead body, say two,
say three dead bodies, say four,
[…] say bedroom, say attic
And so on. Both the recurring “X” and “say” intensifies the urgency of the situation. They almost overwhelm the poem the way flood waters overwhelmed rescuers in the gulf coast.
Going back to identity, Pollack’s speaker mirrors Ellison’s narrator another way. Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker is mistaken for a white man when he encounters a modern-day orisha of change in the poem “Oya in Old City.” The mistake happens twice: once by “the red-bone woman/ wearing two coats and sitting on a bench” who yells, “i ain’t Nigga Mary” in response to the speaker’s “how are you?” And again in a flashback of a childhood trip to Philadelphia when a homeless woman sees him staring and says, “take a motherfuckin picture aint you never/ seen a nigga.”
The speaker’s childhood image of Philly transforms in the poem “Killadelphia.” In the poem, it’s not so much the human actions within as it is the speaker’s grim portrait of Philly. Here are the physical details:
where pit bull
throats into yowls
[…] molded lids
Those details make Philly a city that scowls at outsiders. “Killadelphia” is an audible poem sprinkled throughout with onomatopoeias such as “poppa pop-pop pop” of gunshots and the “slap-clap” of “sneaker soles […]/ on asphalt” and daybreak’s “rumble-grumble” along with the “smack-/thwacking” newsprint and the “skittery-skitter/ of boys.”
While the speaker’s tone ranged from sad to cynical to candid in the earlier poems, his scatting in “Killadelphia” makes his tone both playful and critical. The scat becomes background music amid the “security gates/ flung up in rickety-/ racket at Mt. Zion’s/ store front worship” and the “raccoon’s crash-/ dash as it drags/ a near-dead pigeon/ from a rust-pitted/ trash can” and the “fluttery-stutter/ of the bird’s one good wing/ flapping to lift/ its carcass into/ still-darksome dawn.”
And that’s as far as the similarities go between Iain Haley Pollack’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy and the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Up to this point, the similarities between both men echoed Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Most people are other people…their lives a mimicry.” But, unlike Ellison’s narrator who eventually embraces his invisibility, Pollack’s speaker continues his ongoing journey to find himself.
Going back to the poem “Oya in Old City,” Pollack’s encounter with the angry homeless woman (“take a motherfuckin picture aint you never/ seen a nigga”) makes it clear which side of his biracial self the speaker’s leaning towards in terms of identity. It’s evident in his response to the homeless woman: “I flung my almost-white self/ into my mother’s embrace—that brown/ embrace I hoped would swallow me whole and spit back a boy four shades darker.”
 from the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster”
 from the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuers’ Mark
 from the poem “Oya in Old City”
 from the poem “Killadelphia”
 Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 2.
 Ibid., 2-3.
 Ibid., 8-9.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 22-23.
As America’s top Black-owned and operated record company and business, Motown Records signified a new day. The cultural icon’s chart-topping singles and often-imitated sound embodied the struggle for progress and optimism of a long-dispirited people.
Under owner/publisher Heather Buchanan-Gueringer’s direction, Willow Books’ mission is no different. The press develops, publishes and promotes underrepresented writers.
If a publisher’s personal triumphs show a press’s future successes, then I’m confident Willow Books will thrive as a luminary on the literary landscape. Heather Buchanan-Gueringer, an award-winning publisher-editor-arts consultant, is a former State Officer for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a past Vice-President of the Great Lakes Independent Publishers Association and American Business Women’s Association (Ambassador Tri-County Chapter).
A past COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities, Buchanan-Gueringer founded Aquarius Press in 1999 and continues to publish top talent from across the nation, many through the Willow Books literary imprint.
The press cut its teeth through partnerships with universities and literary organizations such as the National Book Foundation, Poets & Writers, Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., Poets House, Springfed Arts, Wayne State University, Chicago State University and the University of New Haven, among others. The press also hosts conferences such as the Idlewild Writers Conference and the LitFest Spring Retreat, and regularly exhibits at Associated Writing Program’s (AWP) Annual Conference.
Willow Books’ mission of developing underrepresented writers stemmed from Buchanan-Gueringer’s service as a past executive director of the Detroit Writers’ Guild. She continues the literary imprint’s mission as an adjunct professor, most recently teaching at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the College for Creative Studies.
As an arts consultant, Buchanan-Gueringer served on the planning committee for what is now the Virgil Carr Cultural Arts Center. She also founded the Metro Detroit Performing Arts Center. Buchanan-Gueringer, a musician as well, serves on the board of the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to Buchanan-Gueringer, Willow Books is blessed to have award-winning writer Randall Horton, PhD., as its poetry editor. Horton’s honors include the Bea González Prize for Poetry, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Cave Canem.
Also on Willow Books’ staff are poet/photographer Jerriod Avant (editorial assistant) and award-winning poet Curtis Crisler (contributing poetry editor). I’d say, with that staff and their credentials, Willow Books is in good hands.
I’m honored to be among its word crooners such as Makalani Bandele, Krista Franklin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Derrick Harriell. The six-year-old press lost its baby teeth with its word warriors such as Kelly Norman Ellis, Tara Betts, and Tony Medina. (You’ll find Willow Books’ complete line-up on its authors’ page.)
The unsurpassed excellence and sophistication the musicians and singers brought to Motown Records lives on in the works and accomplishments of Willow Books’ award-winning authors, many of which are professors with advanced degrees.
The fairly young literary imprint flexed its new muscles with the Literature Awards, Open Reading Period, and Emerging Writer Chapbook Series. This Saturday, Willow Books will flex those same muscles with its 2nd Annual LitFest, a mini conference/retreat with readings, book fair, networking and workshops.
In partnership with the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University, this year’s LitFest will include manuscript sessions, a panel discussion, public readings, and an open mic. It will also feature Willow Books Literature Awards Finalists’ Reading and Awards Ceremony, where the press will announce its poetry and prose winners. (Download the brochure here)
Most events are free and open to the public but require registration. (Download and complete the LitFest Registration Form). For more info, please visit Willow Books LitFest. You can also keep up with the press by liking the Willow Books Group Page.
EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, poet and educator Curtis Crisler, recently taught my debut poetry collection, DRIFT, to his students at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. He emailed me his students’ questions, which resulted in this cyber conversation:
What did you say to the girl who approached you to apologize for her behavior towards you?
All I could do was accept her apology. She caught me off-guard because I hadn’t seen, or thought of, that person in so long. It’s always refreshing, though, when you have encounters like that, when someone from your past goes out of their way to try to make things right. All I could do was appreciate that moment and accept her apology.
Do you think the apology had anything to do with your success?
No. This person didn’t know I was a poet. I’m not on TV and I’ve been on the radio (a few people heard me on NPR, but that’s it). She didn’t know then what I was doing with my life. Again, I think she realized the opportunity to make things right and took it.
How do you feel about your first collection of poems? Are you happy with how they ended up, or do you wish you could change some things?
I’m always going to want to change things. I guess that’s the nature of writers. When I wrote DRIFT, I did my best with what I knew then. That’s all we can do. Since Willow Books published DRIFT, I completed grad school with way more knowledge of the craft than I had when I wrote those poems. While I would change some things in that collection, I’m glad it’s the way it is. I look at it as a marker for where I was at that time. I’m currently shopping around a new manuscript for what I hope will be a second book. It’s tentatively titled POINT BLANK. In that manuscript, I’m working with a whole different set of techniques that I’m excited about. I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer.
How did you come to the title, Drift?
I went through the manuscript, looking for a poem that I would title the collection after. When I came across “Drift,” I realized that, just how the speaker was drifting through that moment, the speaker also drifts throughout the collection. My goal was to take the reader from love, to social commentary, to poems about my family, to brotherhood, and so on. I wanted to bring the reader inside the speaker’s head, to have him/her drift along and experience those moments the way the speaker did. DRIFT sets up that expectation.
What inspired you to write “Blackberry Speaks/Txt?”
I had a BlackBerry then, and I was sick of hearing about the iPhone. I’ve since upgraded to an Android phone. But I thought about how the BlackBerry had its heyday as a device once used by state and federal lawmakers, businessmen and women, etc. And in a blink, it became outdated. Then I got to thinking about our elderly, who hold so much wisdom, but we miss out because we think they don’t know what they’re talking about. The idea is, “They’ve lived their lives. What they know about mine?” So I wanted to explore that through the voice of an unappreciated BlackBerry. I wanted it to be humorous and serious all at once.
What was it that made you want to be a poet?
My first encounter with poetry was a traumatic experience. There’s nothing more traumatic than knowing that if you couldn’t recite the assigned poem, you’d be on the wall during recess, watching your friends have fun. Once I got over my first encounter, I realized poetry wasn’t so bad. I wrote it for the girls in high school, then later became serious about it during undergrad. The more I read, the more I appreciated the craft, the more I saw what was possible—the subjects I could tackle, the various literary devices I could use, the different ways I could connect with people. Cait Johnson, a former mentor of mine, once said: “Poetry’s a shortcut to empathy.” I like to think that, as poets, we’re helping to shape society’s conscience. While that’s ambitious, and at the risk of romanticizing poetry, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that people turn to poems to celebrate love and remember those who pass on.
When did you know you were a poet?
I’d have to say it was when the older writers, who I saw as legends in D.C.’s arts community, pulled me aside and red-inked my paper. These were writers who didn’t waste their time with folks who weren’t serious. The fact that they saw or heard something in my work, enough to look it over and offer their critiques, still stays with me. They were passing their wisdom on to me. That’s not to be taken lightly. Some of those writers have moved on to other cities. The ones I do see, I always make sure I tell them—even nearly a decade later—how much I appreciated what they did for me.
Who are your favorite poets and why? Which writer was your biggest inspiration when you first began to write?
Whoa! I’ll start with my inspiration, which was Sonia Sanchez. I had her book, SHAKE LOOSE MY SKIN. It was a poetry collection that included her micro fiction. I had to read that book a few times to really appreciate it. I initially picked it up because another writer told me Ms. Sanchez was someone whose work I should know. So when I was able to appreciate SHAKE LOOSE, she showed that poems could both be a bullhorn for justice and quiet as a whisper in a lover’s ear. I loved her range and what she was capable of talking about in her work. Other writers that inspire me are Yusef Komunyakaa (I’m still in love with NEON VERNACULAR), Patricia Smith, Ai (she was my introduction to persona poems), Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns (I still go back to VELOCITIES), Sherman Alexie, and the list goes on.
At the top of that heap is Tim Seibles, who was my mentor both the first and last residency of my MFA program. What he admired about Jimi Hendrix and Sade Adu, he applied it to his poems. Just as Hendrix and Adu kept working at their craft until the product was seamless, Tim works at a poem ‘til all of it sings loud. There’s no weak lines in Tim’s work. His ability to use humor to tackle serious social issues is a skill I still admire. He’s been called the master of the “tickle-punch” poetry. He uses humor to trick his readers into dropping their guard, then he punches them with the message. When their guards go up, he tickles them again, then punches them with the message. He does that over and over. Because of him, I try to max out my poem’s full potential every time I write.
What moments in your life were your biggest influences for your writings?
The influences came from time with my family and from past romantic relationships. I write more about my family in my new manuscript. In DRIFT, they make brief appearances because I wanted to capture D.C., at least how I experienced that city. The biggest influence is people watching. I do it with a poet-friend of mine, Derrick Weston Brown. We’re always interested in the nonverbal communication between strangers. It’s a great way to get material for new pieces—that is after reading other writers, of course.
I really like your poem 3a.m.—what inspired that poem?
Thanks! “3a.m.” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend, who had it in her mind we were going to get married. There’s the irony (she broke up with me). But I thought about our late night caper for food. I remembered how good it felt just being with her. That moment at the late night diner somehow burned itself into my mind. I didn’t know then that I’d write a poem about that night. I guess writers have those moments, when we’re sponges, soaking up every detail of a moment. Then years later, a song or smell brings those details out and you’re far enough away from that moment that you can write it.
It seems much of your poetry is symmetric in regards to lines per stanza. Why is that so?
At the time I wrote those poems, I would have told you it was for uniformity of stanzas. But I recently found out I have OCD, particularly, “purely obsessional” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (some of those symptoms include intrusive thoughts and psychological compulsions). I think that has something to do with what my wife sees as me being neurotic, where I’m obsessed with the order of things. Tim Seibles helped me break out of that. He said, “Bruh, you’re poems don’t have to be neat. It’s OK if your stanzas are a little messy.”
Where do you like to write your poetry?
Anywhere there’s noise—coffee shops (especially with the cappuccino machines whining and music spooling through hanging speakers), classrooms, restaurants (I got inspired by an Al Green song at the CiCi’s pizza buffet), outside on any street corner, etc.
Before writing, do you have certain rituals or certain things you always do? Example: Where you write, certain notebook/computer, etc? Or do you just jot down ideas as they come to you?
I tend to write in my head, at first. I’ll have an idea and let it incubate. Sometimes I’ll share that idea with Derrick and our conversation about it will help me figure out how to execute it. Other times, it incubated in my head, with a few lines coming to me. I’ll let it build until I have to put it on the page. Once I get it all out, I put the poem away, then come back to it after a few weeks or months. I try to put as much distance as I can between me and the poem (that’s my process now; it wasn’t when I wrote DRIFT). In the past, I sent raw work to friends for suggestions. Now, I distance myself from the poems by coming back to them after a few weeks or months. That’s when my mind’s fresh and I can play around with stanzas—moving them around, starting the poem with the last, second, or next to last stanza. Other times, I’ll ask myself questions: how much of the story is in this poem? Will someone coming to this poem without the information I have understand what’s going on in the poem? I also have the voices of people I’ve workshopped with—former mentors, friends, etc. I anticipate the questions they would ask if they saw the poem. Once I get it the poem to where I’m satisfied, I send it to a few trustful readers. I say trustful because these are people who are honest with me. They’ll let me know what’s working and what I need to work on. They also tell me when I have to scrap it and start over.
I love the titles to your poems, so how do you come up with them because when reading some of them they made me stop and think, where did he get this from? (After reading the poem).
Thank you. I don’t like titling my poems before I’ve finished a draft. So I’ll write a poem, then go through it, looking for the title. Sometimes the title answers a question posed by the poem. The title may set up the reader’s expectation. Either way, the title is doing work. That’s the goal.
When writing a poem, do you have a set message that you are trying to get across to your readers, or do you just write and see what your finished poems turn out to be?
I usually have a message or something I want to communicate. That’s the idea I mentioned in response to a previous question. Once I get the idea, I have to figure out how I’m going to approach it. I look at the poem as a vehicle that’s going to help me drive my point home. That’s something I’ve learned from Tim Seibles and the older writers I’ve workshopped with. With that said, I do let the poem surprise me. If I realize I’m forcing the poem to go in one direction, I ease up and let it take me somewhere else. I figure if I’m excited about the process, that makes the reader’s journey to that message just as exciting.
Did you ever worry about legal issues when you wrote about drugs?
No. I never did drugs. I hung out with people who did them. I never judged them. Plus, I was not incriminating myself or them. If I mention names, it’s first names only. And I make sure they’re common names J
Was it difficult to talk about sexual things?
Not at all. I’m not the only person in the world that loves sex. I figure there are other people out there feel the same way I do. My goal as a writer is to make sure the reader experiences my poems in a way that makes him/her recall their own experiences and bring up memories they thought they’d forgotten. If I do that, then that’s where I’ve connected with the reader. That’s always my goal.
What do you do when you run out of ideas?
I read as much as I can—both in and outside my genres (poetry and creative nonfiction). I go to museums. I spend time with my wife, in-laws, and my family. The whole point is to live. Experience new things. The poems will come. But, in the meantime, I’m in sponge mode.
What do you think about when you write your poetry, or what do you feel?
Unlike some poets I’ve heard say they get a line or two, I get an image. If a scent or song recalls a memory, I see what happened during that moment, which heightens my senses. Ask my wife, when she sees me in that moment, I’m usually staring into space. But, to me, I’m briefly reliving that moment. I soak out all the details, then start to write.
Have you written poetry all (or most of) your life? What was your first exposure to it?
I’m 32. I’ve written poetry, seriously, for 14 years. In total, I’d say I’ve been writing for 16 years—that’s me including the silly poems I wrote when I started. My first exposure was in 4th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Garrison, had us read and recite poems. It was mandatory. If we couldn’t recite it, we didn’t get recess, hence, the traumatic experience I mentioned earlier.
When I studied poetry again in middle school, I fell in love with the rhyme and rhythm. Now that I don’t rhyme anymore in my poems, the rhythm stayed with me. I love rhythm in a poem.
Was your journey to becoming a published poet a difficult one?
That journey required me to learn patience. I had to develop tough skin and know that rejection would be a part of that process. But rejection is good, because it makes it possible to appreciate when things come through. Rejection’s also good because it humbles you. It’s a constant reminder that what you’re trying to do is going to take some work.
When you first began to write poetry, did you feel like you were constrained? If so, what did you do to free yourself?
What constrained me in the beginning was meter. That’s how I learned poetry. I wrote sonnets and other forms. While I enjoyed that, I felt like the meter and form wasn’t allowing me to say what I wanted to say. I’m not against all forms. I actually like the villanelle, bop (an African American form), ghazal, gigan (another African American form), and pantoum.
But I didn’t feel like the sonnet allowed me to say what I really wanted to say (there are some formalist poets who’ll disagree with me, and that’s fine J). It wasn’t until I read Langston Hughes’ later works, along with Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, that I discovered free verse. I loved the freedom. But, with that freedom, comes great responsibility. Free verse may look easy, but it’s hard. Since you’re not writing in form, it’s easy for someone to argue that what you’re writing is not a poem. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing anecdotes instead of poems. With free verse, you have to consider a lot of poetic devices—is there rhythm and alliteration? Are my lines sharp, do they snap? Does this poem go beyond the moment? Is it bigger than the moment? What’s the takeaway from this?
It’s just so many things to consider. That’s why reading writers who write free verse well helps reinforce those literary devices that really make the poem sing.
What inspired you to write “Quasimodo in NYC?”
If you’re familiar with the story about the hunchback of Notre Dame, then you know it’s really a tale about unrequited love. We’ve all been there—you like someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. That’s what makes Quasimodo’s story so universal. Before I met my wife, I went through a Quasimodo moment when I kept running into women who couldn’t return what I felt for them. This poem was about a particular woman who I thought had the same feelings for me that I had for her. Anyway, when it wasn’t so, I went for a walk. We both met up at an annual writer’s conference that New York City hosted that year. I wrote the poem through Quasimodo’s persona because I connected with the hunchback. After a few rejections, you don’t feel so attractive.
I’m coming off a high after graduation last month. I finished the Stonecoast M.F.A. Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine, a two-year journey I started for time to write and complete another manuscript to shop around.
It allowed me to expand my network, see Maine (a place I otherwise would not have visited), and to work with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles. While he was the hook, Stonecoast introduced me to other faculty members with invaluable insights: Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, Scott Wolven, Annie Finch, David Anthony Durham, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Cait Johnson.
That high, in part, resulted from my last residency experience—where I spoke on a panel about third semester projects, introduced Tim Seibles before his reading and Q&A, conducted an hour-long seminar on collaborations, and got an amazing intro from Tim at the Graduating Student Reading. My wife, parents, and sister flew in, met the faculty, and fellow Stonecoasters.
I rode that high back to D.C., determined that nothing would kill it—not even Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post column “Is Poetry Dead?,” which dumped Poetry in a hospice. “Can a poem still change anything?” she wrote. “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” That most people I encounter share Petri’s sentiment doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the anti-poetry comments bombard me: from my dad constantly asking how writers feed themselves, to “good for you” responses after people hear I’m a published poet, to the forced smile my wife’s sorority sister gave me when she found out what an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) was and what I studied.
I shook my head after a poetry buddy told me about an unsuccessful spoken word artist who recently said, “I don’t do that poetry shit anymore.” When the anti-poets spew their rhetoric, I’m grateful for this excerpt of Donald Hall’s 1989 essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry”:
After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.
The Church of Poetry ain’t short on hallelujahs—not when poetry’s still read at weddings and funerals, not when people turn to poets or attempt to write their own verse on Valentine’s Day or anytime they declare their love for someone special. Could it be what Cait Johnson once said, that “poetry is a shortcut to empathy,” and that “poetry gets at the soul faster”?
My soul sambaed the evening I watched a couple wait for a table at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets in D.C. Attempting to woo his wife, the husband pulled a random poetry book off the shelf, an action prompted by his wife’s question some time before: “Why don’t you read me poetry?”
After reading a few poems aloud, he said, “This is really good.” He bought the book, then, hearing the author was present, asked the poet to pose with him for a photo. When the host called their name, the husband shook the poet’s hand and said that book will help their marriage.
The gospel doesn’t stop there. I’d love to take Alexandra Petri to Hart Middle School in D.C.’s most neglected community (the Congress Heights neighborhood in the city’s southeast quadrant). Every week, she’d see kids, who thought they didn’t like poetry, laughing as they scribbled their raps.
She’d see a 7th grader sweat each line of his poem about going to visit his dad’s grave that day after school. She’d see an 8th grader writing about her dual heritages (a Jamaican dad and Panamanian mom).
If after all that, Petri said, “That’s nice, but shouldn’t they be doing something more practical,” I’d turn her attention to a 2007 interview, where Bill Moyers asked poet Martín Espada the same thing. “Well, for me, poetry is practical,” Espada said. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it– poetry makes that practical contribution.”
I’d love to take Petri to Duke Ellington School of the Arts on the well-to-do side of town, where she’d see a 10th grader using poetry to deal with her mother’s passing last year. I wonder how she’d feel about her thesis after watching a classroom of students fired up after reading a poem about the ill-treatment of a hit and run victim.
I wish she could hear those 10th graders calling America on her hypocrisies before writing their own poems in the hit and run victim’s voice—addressing the drivers who honked their horns, the detectives who swapped jokes above her, or the shaken witness who stole the crime scene spotlight. I’d turn to Petri and–imitating Espada’s voice–say, “You just saw poetry make ‘…the abstract concrete…the general specific and particular.'”
I’d recommend the Post columnist shadow poet Patricia Smith on one of her school visits through Chicago. I’d like to see Petri’s reaction when Nicole asks Smith to help her remember her mother she lost to drug addiction.
I’d send Petri to Durham, NC, where Dr. Randall Horton brings poetry to a halfway house where he was once a resident. I could imagine Petri speechless, watching those men and women count haiku syllables on their fingers. She might even yell “Damn!” when a guy’s poem reminisces about a fine woman’s sundress that was “ghetto dandelion yellow.”
It’s obvious Alexandra Petri’s out of the loop. “The problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed,” DC poet Joseph Ross wrote in a blog post, which listed a literary institution and contemporary local poets. Ross even offered to show Petri other places where Poetry lives in D.C. “Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading,” he wrote. “Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C., that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.”
And that’s nice, considering what every poet wanted to give Petri. Her column wasn’t just “breathtakingly uninformed”; it was offensive. The poets expressed this through the cyber beat down they gave Petri. I’m talking about angry comments posted to her column, an open letter with a reading list, and “irate tweets calling me ‘pretty [expletiving] stupid,’” Petri recalled in a follow-up column, retracting her initial thesis.
But a few thrown stones don’t stop the Church of Poetry from rejoicing, which brings me back to my high and my M.F.A. degree. I could go into what poetry did for me, but I’ve done that enough (plus, it’s on my “About” page). For those who don’t know, this Poetry Church is so funky the gospel wafts like cannabis clouds in a hotboxed car. We welcome nonbelievers to catch contact highs. There’s always room in the cipher.
Bomb Magazine posted the full interview I conducted with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles, who I also profiled in an earlier post. Here’s an excerpt from the intro:
Tim Seibles is among the rare literary talents whose work is alive on and off the page. In fact, he’s out of this world. If Tim was an X-Man, he would be Iceman. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where he hones his skill and powers to defend humanity.
Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in 2004, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, “For Brothers Everywhere” (from his second collection Hurdy-Gurdy), Tim compared the streetballers to “ . . . muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”
Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy-Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.
Read the full interview by clicking here.
At any moment, the human mind rapidly shifts between thoughts. It’s that movement Seibles mimicks when arranging the sections of his books. “If we’re really listening, we’ll go from rage to tenderness pretty quickly,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I try to put together different kinds of poems in a section…approximately the ways in which our minds move.”
The results are five books that take readers on an exciting ride through a surprising twist of tone and subject matter on each page. This skill is one reason the National Book Foundation selected his latest collection Fast Animal as a 2012 National Book Award Finalists.
“Established in 1950, the National Book Award is an American literary prize given to writers by writers and administered by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization,” according to nationalbook.org. A panel of five judges in each genre chooses five finalists from those submitted in their category, which ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to 500 titles (Nonfiction).
The Foundation will honor Seibles and other finalists Nov. 14 at New York City’s Cipriani Wall Street. The evening before, he’ll be among those presenting during the National Book Award Finalists Reading at The New School.
News of his nomination pinballed through the national literary scene, with poet and activist Tony Medina weighing in. “Tim Seibles’ NBA nomination not only validates what has been a steady, stellar commitment to the word with an incredible body of personal, political, bitingly satirical poetry of integrity,” Medina says. “It also shines some much-needed light on the great, risk-taking work independent presses are engaged in in the face of such precarious times in publishing.”
Cornelius Eady is also ecstatic. “I’m really pleased about his nom,” says Eady, who co-founded the Cave Canem week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent, where Seibles taught workshops. Of the nomination, Eady added, “It’s way overdue.”
That excitement spread to Seibles’ Facebook wall, where friends and colleagues congratulated him. Among them was Debra Marquart, who teaches with Seibles in the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. “Not a bit surprised,” she posted, “but very much delighted by this news!”
“Yaaay, Tim!” posted Marilyn Nelson, poet, translator and children’s book author. “Congratulations!”
Seibles felt the love. “Most beloved friends!… It means a lot to have so many good people in my corner,” according to his wall post. “Again, I so appreciate your belief in me and my poems. For me, being a writer is all about these kinds of connections, fam. May only sweet luck rain on every one of you.”
To hear Seibles tell it, his nomination is icing on top of icing that includes his more than two decades of sharing his work to both national and international audiences. Philly born and bred, Seibles is a member of Old Dominion University’s (ODU) English Department and MFA faculty. A teaching board member of the Muse Writers Workshop, he received fellowships from both the Provincetown Fine Arts Center and The National Endowment for the Arts. He won the Open Voice Award from the 63rd Street Y in New York City. The Stadler Center for Poetry awarded Seibles a Poet in Residence post at Bucknell University. His poems appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American poetry 2010.
The National Book Award Nomination is also payoff for Seibles’ patience and sweat that produced his previous collections: Body Moves, Hurdy–Gurdy, Hammerlock, and Buffalo Head Solos. He got the news while he and Jamaican-American poet Shara McCallum visited the Nichols School in Buffalo, NY. “We read poems…talked about how you write poetry, how you analyze it,” Seibles recalls. He tried to ignore his vibrating phone. “Finally, I pulled it out of my pocket in the middle of class and looked at it and saw: ‘Congratulations, National Book Award Finalist.’”
Cait Johnson is another Stonecoast colleague thrilled by her “compadre’s” nomination. “I’ve been a fan since I read his Hurdy-Gurdy and realized that here was a rare man who honors the divine feminine while maintaining a warm, dynamic, and very muscular masculinity,” Johnson says. “Such luscious balance! Such gritty, real, and often lyrical work.”
My first encounter with Seibles’ work was in 2004, when I Googled him and came across his poem “For Brothers Everywhere” (from Hurdy-Gurdy). What blew me away was him calling the streetballers “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.” Since then, I’ve always admired how Seibles sweats a poem to its maximum potential. Another example is his poem “The Applecake,” where he offers this stunning sequence:
I like to consider your applecake
smiling on the kitchen counter, dressed
only in its sweetness, its round face
a jubilant island of apple and sugar—
no mere strudel or sloppy cobbler—
it is a baked cathedral of promises
kept, your applecake
opening up like a three-day weekend,
a Good Friday for the mouth, a jailbreak
from the hard, inedible, unthinkable city.
He makes it look effortless, yet it’s a labor-rich process. “When I think about a poem, I think about it being analogous to a song,” Seibles says. “I think about the songs I love the most.” Among those is Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Love” from his Band of Gypsies album. “In those five minutes, there’s so much happening in that song both in terms of lyrics and…the sound of the guitar,” he recalls. “Man, I have played that song, since 1970, probably 10,000 times.”
Another inspiration is Sade Adu’s title song “Soldier of Love”. “The musical composition behind her voice sonically is perfectly conceived…the instrumentation is perfect, the inflection of her voice is perfect, the tonal and timbre qualities of her voice is perfect,” Seibles says. “It’s like everything is in place and it makes the song so rich, second by second that it’s irresistible.”
He added: “I know the only way Sade…and Hendrix did that was they worked their asses off. They kept thinking, ‘I can do more. I can make this better.’ They went into the studio and stayed until it rang. So what I try to do, when I think about my poems, is try to approach that work with the same integrity of Hendrix, Sade, and many others.”
DC poet Brandon Johnson certainly puts Seibles up there with Sade and Hendrix. “I admire Tim Seibles’ work because of his ability to inject deep tones into conversational communications,” he says, citing Seibles’ skill at turning pop culture into social commentary.
He does this through his persona poems that speak through Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, where a classic cartoon subtly shifts into a discussion on human character. “Tim’s work always speaks to me because of his sensible way of reminding me that the complex can be explained without charts and graphs,” Johnson says, “just an entreaty to pay attention and think past yourself.”
Seibles developed that skill and integrity as a young poet, 19 years old, dreaming of writing books and sharing his work with the world. “Once I got hooked on writing, I was going to be writing something, and most of it was going to be poems,” he recalls. “I was just really thinking, “I’m going to be writing poems, nothing’s going to stop me, and—damn it!—somebody’s going to hear me at some point.”
He learned humility from his teachers Michael Ryan, John Skoyles, and Jack Myers at Southern Methodist University (and later from Mark Cox, Myers again, Susan Mitchell, and Richard Jackson at Vermont College, where he got his MFA). “Because of the ways my teachers spoke about paying your dues, like how many rejection slips they got and how long it took before someone was even willing to publish one or two of their poems, let alone a book, I just assumed it was going to take a long time to get much notice,” Seibles recalls. “That’s just the nature of things. There are a lot of writers out there who are better…who’ve been doing it longer, whose craft is sharper. You just keep doing your thing and eventually someone would notice what I was doing.”
Sarah Browning and Melissa Tuckey definitely noticed. “As his many devoted readers know, Tim’s poems are tender and righteous, playful and erotic, lyrical and full of heart,” says Browning, who met Seibles at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in 2006.
That year, she attended his panel on the erotic in poetry. “Needless to say, I was knocked out,” recalls Browning, director and co-founder of Split This Rock, a nonprofit that celebrates the poetry of witness and provocation through a biannual festival, where Seibles read and led a workshop. “Every book of Tim’s has been extraordinary and, last month, the National Book Foundation wised up,” Browning says. “I’m thrilled that the NBF’s recognition will bring more readers to Tim’s essential work. He is truly one of the most urgent and necessary poets of our time.”
Melissa Tuckey agreed. “I love the humor and joy and political engagement in his work, his generous imagination,” says Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock. She served as co-director of the nonprofit from 2008 to 2010.
She first heard Seibles read at Ohio University more than a decade ago. She’s been a fan since. “I am super excited about Fast Animal‘s National Book Award nomination,” Tuckey says. “It’s well deserved, terrific to see his work in the national spotlight.”
The nomination still feels surreal to Seibles. “I’m only now beginning to realize how big a deal it is,” he says. “I always imagined it would be a big deal to get a major award or to be nominated for a major award.” The closest thing he’s experienced to a National Book Award nomination was when he won the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1990. That year, Seibles was among the 40 people the federal arts agency awarded.
However, the National Book Foundation spotlights five writers in each genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. “That’s a very big thing,” Seibles says. Of being among the five, he added: “It really puts you in a tight set of company.”
In addition to comments on his Facebook wall and my conversations with his friends and colleagues, I constructed this article from a small part of an interview I conducted with Tim Seibles for an extended Q&A-piece that’s forthcoming in BOMB Magazine.
Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.
But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.
The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.
Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)
The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”
Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”
Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).
Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”
That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”
The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.
The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).
Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:
…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.
“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.
Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille] Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”
Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.
Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.
At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”
And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.
His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.
That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”
His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.
She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”
Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.
His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”
Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”
His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.
What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:
now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.
The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.
That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”